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A True Community at Hope Gardens

By Vanessa Nason

Hope Gardens began as an agricultural education space for the Chapel Hill community, including the university. Its goal was to produce seeds for marginalized farming communities abroad. But it quickly transformed.

"In the fall of 2008, students from UNC's HOPE (Homeless Outreach Poverty Eradication) committee of the Campus Y developed Hope Gardens as a tool for social justice right here in our community: a transitional employment program for homeless individuals and an inclusive community garden, each meant to facilitate relationships and dialogue among the student, homeless, low-income, and broader Chapel Hill communities in a "side by side" work environment," says Catherine Swift, co-chair of Hope Gardens.

Hope Gardens became an all-inclusive program that would provide job training to unemployed and underemployed individuals, connecting people with professional networks, long-term employers, and fellow gardeners. In 2011, after their pilot summer in 2010, when they hired their first transitional employees, the student-run staff realized that there was a collective need for food within the community. "We learned through conversations with members of our local homeless and low-income community that healthy lifestyles are actively desired, just not easily accessible," says Swift. Thus the Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program was born. Says Swift, "The goal of this program was to combat the barriers of both access and affordability for our neighbors desiring fresh produce. The unique experience of managing a business, social venture, and working urban farm gave students the opportunity to grow and develop."

They continued to expand when in February of 2013 they launched Hope Cooks, which connects the produce they grow to those that need it. "This community cooking/nutrition class brings together UNC-Chapel Hill students, Mujeres Avanzanda hacia Nuevas Oportunidades (MANO) participants, and Community Empowerment Fund (CEF) members for a weekly participatory dinner. Participants help prepare the meal (centered around Hope Gardens' produce), and learn tips for cooking on a budget in the process," explains Swift.

Hope Gardens also offers a variety of other programs and services, including this year's partnership with Classroom 2 Community, where they train Hope Gardens members to teach guest classes in local elementary schools on topics like sustainability and nutrition; and monthly meals/events which they host at the garden, allowing them to connect with the community and maintain those connections.

Hope Gardens grows a large variety of produce, and continues to bring the whole community together, regardless of their background and walks of life. "Our garden workdays, community meals and events, and Hope Cooks definitely all serve to bring students, community members, and members of the homeless shelters all together around a central focus of food, sustainability, and community development," says Swift. "Also, the community gardeners have the ability to meet different and new people (who share the same love of gardening) that they otherwise would probably have never met!"

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About The Author

Vanessa Nason is a fourth year journalism major at Northeastern University. She's...

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